Surviving Competition In A Crowded Marketplace

 A Strategic Planning Case Study

Problem: I am a vein practice that for quite some time has enjoyed very little competition in my service area and have been viewed by both patients and primary care physicians in my community as the “go to” medical practice for patients seeking vein care treatments. In the past 12 to 18 months, I have noticed increased competition from either new vein practices opening up in town or established medical practices now offering vein treatments, both of which are a threat to my market share. The number of new patient consults each month is declining and my primary care referral relationships, where they used to refer to me exclusively, are now splitting patient referrals between several vein practices. What Should I Do?

Solution: Running a successful vein practice is not like the Kevin Costner movie, Field of Dreams … you can build out a beautiful office in a great location but it does not mean that your waiting room will be full of patients. To succeed in a competitive environment, you must take the time to develop a marketing strategy and a marketing plan to gain consumer and referral physician confidence.

Marketing is all about letting patients and referral physicians know about your qualifications and persuading them that your vein practice is the best choice for vein care in a crowded marketplace. And for effective marketing, you have to deliver this message on an ongoing basis. Your marketing strategy is a summary of your practice’s clinical competencies and position in relation to other vein practices in your service area. Your sales and marketing plans are the specific actions you’re going to undertake to achieve the goals of your marketing strategy.

Every physician is unique in his or her practice goals, marketplace, budget, personality, interests, etc. and as a result of that uniqueness each practice needs a customized marketing strategy and marketing plan that is tailored to the interests and goals of the physician (or group). A “one-size-fits-all” approach doesn’t work.

The majority of doctors I talk to want to communicate a caring and compassionate branding message that strongly differentiates them from everyone else. They want to grow by maintaining current referral patterns, winning new doctor referrals, and recapturing referral sources that have slipped away.

While the Internet gives consumers an important and convenient way to search for a physician who treats vein disease, my recommendation is to not rely on your web site alone. It takes a savvy Internet marketing strategy to reach patients and compel them to call your office to schedule a consultation.

To succeed in a competitive environment, it’s vital to distinguish your vein practice and your clinical capabilities in a way that builds trust and inspires patient and physician referrals. It’s increasingly important to reach men and women in their workplace, to ethically raise your visibility with direct-to-consumer marketing activities and to extend your visibility with current and potential referral physicians through the use of a physician liaison.

So whether you want to market to win more doctor referrals, open additional offices, overcome marketplace disadvantages, differentiate yourself from the competition or simply get more patients to call you, it all starts with developing a marketing strategy and a marketing plan.

A marketing plan for a vein practice is a strategy that is designed to facilitate the achievement of specific growth goals. It is not simply scheduling an occasional free vein screening or patient event. It is an overall strategy that encompasses advertising, media relations / PR, physician referrals, patient referrals, as well as planned events to create practice exposure (free screenings, PCP lunch n learns, community education seminars, etc.).


To be effective, your marketing plan must be S.M.A.R.T:

S – Specific: What do you want to accomplish?
M – Measurable: How will you measure success?
A – Attainable: Are your goals achievable?
R – Realistic: Unrealistic goals are never met!
T – Timely: What is your timeline for completion?

Getting Started ….

Complete a SWOT Analysis.

SWOT has become a buzzword in marketing today. All medical practices should know their Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. A vein practice has to understand its internal Strengths and Weaknesses and also be cognizant of external Opportunities and Threats. To do a SWOT analysis correctly, you must look at your competition, as well as your own vein practice, from a patient’s perspective. Look at your marketplace with an open and honest perspective. After the SWOT analysis is complete, you will need to build on your strengths, do everything possible to eliminate or correct weaknesses, take advantage of opportunities in the marketplace, and do whatever it takes to minimize or avoid threats to your practice. One of the more interesting definitions of marketing is that “Marketing is the process by which resources are brought to bear against opportunities and threats.”

To market effectively and get maximum returns on your marketing dollar, you must first identify your target audience. As a vein practice, are you marketing to consumers? Referral physicians? Both? Start by clarifying your most promising target market(s). These are markets that are most likely to have an interest in the clinical services that you provide.

If you are marketing cosmetic sclerotherapy treatments, your target audience might be best reached with a direct-to-consumer approach. If you are marketing varicose vein treatments, you will target both consumers who have PPO insurance and can self refer and existing / potential referral physicians. So ask yourself … who is your primary target audience? and do you have multiple target audiences? In addition, make sure that the marketing message you send specifically addresses each particular target audience and what’s important to them. The same message may be not be nearly as appropriate and effective when sent to different audiences.

In a crowded field like venous disease treatment, successful marketing plans communicate what you do and deliver convincing arguments that you are the best possible provider to deliver the expected clinical results. When marketing to existing and potential referral sources, you also have to keep in mind who your target audience is as well. It’s not always the referring physician. It can often be their staff if they serve in a referral coordinator capacity for their practice. The staff that comes into contact with patients in the office directly influence patients and affect their decisions. Staff could include a referral coordinator, patient registration personnel, medical assistants, nurses, physician assistants, and others.


Take A Look At Your Office

When patients visit your office, are you meeting or exceeding their expectations? Your reception area is an immediate reflection of your practice. Put yourself in the place of a potential new patient and ask yourself … if you were a new patient stepping into your office for the first time, and looking at the reception area while walking up to the reception desk, is your practice meeting your own expectations? Is your reception area inviting? When you walk up to the reception desk, does the receptionist greet you warmly? Does it feel like the type of practice that is happy to see you? Or is it a bit on the cold side? Do you have to tap on the counter to get someone to respond? And when someone does respond, do they offer a warm greeting or matter-of-factly state “sign in please”?

Make sure that your reception area is consistent with the professional, warm and inviting image that you want to portray to your patients! Look at your reception area as a piece of your marketing puzzle – don’t refer to it as a waiting area or a waiting room. It’s a reception area. People don’t like to wait.

Even when you strive to minimize the amount of time patients need to wait, there will inevitably be times that patients are sitting in your reception area. During these times you have a captive audience that you can market to in a variety of ways. Not only do you want them to feel as comfortable with you as possible, you want to utilize that time you have their captive attention to your best advantage. You want to reinforce in their minds that you are the best vein practice for them. Perhaps even more importantly, make sure they know all of your practice’s capabilities – all of the treatment options that you provide.

Oftentimes, a patient will not know about all the services that you offer because they came to you for one particular treatment option only. Make sure you have marketing tools in place! Begin with what they can see and pick up and read in your reception area. This can be your first step towards making sure your patients know about all of your treatment options.

This opens a world of possibilities allowing them to take advantage of other treatment options offered – clinical services they are not utilizing now and probably never even associated with your practice. It also opens an even larger door of possibility for them to refer others they know when the topic comes up. They may even think of some people they already know who are in the market for some of your services as they become aware of them – their friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors.

These are the first steps to making sure that you give your patients confidence that they have chosen the best vein practice in selecting you. You may not be used to thinking of these steps as ways to strengthen your practice brand. You may not be used to thinking that your practice even has a brand. Yet if you define your brand as the image and feeling that people form in their minds when they think of your practice, you’ll realize that you do in fact have a brand. It’s perceived value in the minds of your patients and it gets passed along by word-of-mouth.

Let’s say your intent is to portray a professional, state-of-the-art vein practice with leading edge technology and the latest treatment techniques. When a new or existing patient walks into your reception area and finds you have stained carpet with outdated furniture, that’s not consistent with the image and the brand you’re trying to portray! It’s important to consciously develop a brand that emphasizes your strengths and gives each and every patient a reason why they should choose you for treatment.


How To Deliver Your Message – Traditional Media

Advertising in newspapers, radio, television, billboards, etc. target an audience that needs to know that you provide an answer for their vein care needs. There’s little margin for error in a media budget that is expected to produce a measurable return-on-investment.


Relationship Marketing – Hire A Physician Liaison

Marketing to existing and potential referral physicians is a process that requires patience and tremendous planning. It’s not as easy as just taking a lunch to a primary care practice and expecting immediately that they will refer all of their patients to you. It simply doesn’t work that way. It’s a process of continually demonstrating your clinical compentencies to existing and potential referring practices, so that they learn to trust you and your practice as the best vein care specialist possible to treat their patient base.

The main purpose of adding a physician liaison to your practice is to reach out and meet referring practices in your immediate service area. The physician liaison can be a full-time or part-time position. It is critical to the success of this position that the community outreach initiatives remain consistent and provide value so that you separate yourself from other vein practices.

Think strategically about referral patterns. Do you know who refers to your vein practice, who doesn’t, and why? Ask your front desk staff to generate a weekly or monthly referring physician report by procedure. Which physicians currently refer and which types of cases do they send? Do the non-referrers know about all of the vein conditions that you treat or has a patient of theirs experienced a less-than-favorable visit to your office? Identifying the reasons why these physicians do and do not refer can provide the foundation for improving relationships and referral patterns.

Identify other vein practices courting your referral physicians. Success is not achieved by ignoring your competitors but rather by anticipating competitive issues and influences so you can always have a proactive plan and strategy for staying ahead of your competition. Referring physicians often report dissatisfaction with specialists who are slow or late in providing consultation reports. Review your internal processes to make sure communication flows back to the referring physician within 24-48 hours of seeing patients. Before and after pictures are a good idea to support your clinical skills in the referring physician’s mind to encourage additional referrals. Use case studies to bring attention to additional benefits of vein treatments.


Physician Liaison Profile

I believe that although clinical knowledge is obviously important to communicate venous disease and available treatment options to PCPs, it’s not as important as interpersonal skills. In sales, success is predicted based upon a formula of 80 percent people skills and 20 percent product knowledge. If your candidate has a clinical background and the necessary interpersonal skills, you’re off to a good start.

Your physician liaison might be even more effective if you find somebody that, although they may lack the clinical skills and knowledge, have very good verbal communication skills, are polished and presentable, and are not apprehensive about talking to doctors and their staff.

A successful candidate must have thick skin. Rejection will be their new best friend. Many people will not give them the time of day or that they won’t have time to talk to them. And that’s ok. This is where persistence and fortitude pays off. Both physician and physician liaison should also understand that marketing to the medical community for referrals is a numbers game. If you target a hundred new practices you’re not going to get all of them. If fact, you don’t have to. Just getting a few to refer to you consistently may enable you to reach your goals. If your physician liaison is ever asked questions of a clinical nature that they can’t answer, that’s ok. That’s the perfect opportunity to bring you or another provider in, perhaps to do a lunch and learn, to educate the referring doctor and their staff more about the services you provide and what sets you apart from your competition. This also enables you to meet them personally and strengthen the relationship.


Internet Marketing

From websites and social media tools, to patient portals and mobile apps, online marketing is a mainstream channel for marketing, advertising and public relations. Exactly how you use the muscle of the digital freeway can be highly effective and profitable, or a huge waste of time and money.

In the United States, Internet users conduct 5 billion searches every month directly on major search sites. A 2011 Harris Interactive Poll reported that more than 80% of consumers now research health information online. Imagine how many of those Internet searches are actually prospective patients in your service area looking for vein care treatment options. Obviously, you can’t take advantage of any of this traffic if you don’t have a well-designed practice website. If that’s the case, now would be the time to get one.


Pay-Per-Click Advertising

Pay-Per-Click advertising empowers your vein practice to reach potential patients at the exact moment they’re looking for vein care treatment options. While it typically takes 6 to 9 months of hard work to be listed near the top of organic (free) search results, you can start attracting patients immediately by utilizing pay per click ads. You can target your ads geographically, so you’ll only pay for clicks from prospective patients in your area. Keywords are the name of the game. All the networks have keyword generators, but real success lies in brainstorming every possible phrase searchers might use to find you. At a minimum, you should have 300 keywords, and 1,000 or more is much better. Ads need to be direct response oriented. Ideally, you should have a powerful headline, an offer and call to action.


Community Involvement

Sponsoring an event is a great way to get your name out. Most communities have events happening all the time in need of sponsors. Check your local newspaper for upcoming events. Alternatively, giving of your time or services to help in your community, even if it is unrelated to your practice, increases your connection to your patients and their loyalty to you.


Email Marketing

This is the easiest way to target your existing and potential patients. With assistance, it is easy to create, send, and track email newsletters and surveys. Email marketing helps remind your patients to come back and even more importantly, encourage potential new patients to contact your office. Email marketing places you in your patient’s inboxes, keeping you in touch with patients who want to hear from you. With tracking software available, you can see who opened your emails, who forwarded them to friends, and even who you need to resend them to.


Remembering Birthdays

Birthday cards to patients are certainly a strategy that your patients will appreciate. Birthdays are very personal. They’ll appreciate the fact you remembered them. It’s also an opportunity to place your practice in the forefront of their minds for additional services. At the end of each month, identify all the patients whose birthdays are coming up in the next month. Then send them a letter or card, possibly a free sclero treatment gift certificate for them or a friend.

For your referral sources, I suggest getting the birthdays of your top referral sources, especially for your few “A” referral sources that represent most of your referrals. Your physician liaison should be able to get this information from their staff. Remember to acknowledge them on their birthday. If you provide a birthday gift, something personal based on their interests will be better than just a standard gift basket. For example, if you have a referral source that you know is a golfer, get them a gift that’s golf-related. Or if you know they enjoy a certain restaurant, give a gift card from this particular restaurant.

Finally, remember that it’s not only the doctor that can influence and refer the patient. It can also be their staff and mid-level providers, such as nurses, MA’s, NP’s, PA’s, and front office staff. Be sure to remember their birthdays as well and let them know how much you appreciate their trust.

When most physicians think of relationship marketing, they think of establishing and entrenching their relationships with key referral sources, such as PCPs. That’s only partially right. While PCPs account for a lot of the referrals that vein practices get each year, some practices rely or focus on them too much and miss out on establishing solid relationships with their largest referral source: current patients. Market research has repeatedly shown that previous patients refer about 40% of all new patients.

Before you spend another dollar on external resources to market your vein practice, devote time to ensuring that the service you deliver to patients doesn’t just produce satisfaction or loyalty, but also creates patient advocacy. True patient advocates are your most valuable marketing assets. They not only return to you for additional services, but rave about you to others.


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